50 Years Later, The Legacy Of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Lives On

Feb 19, 2018

When Philadelphian Cyndie Carioli was a new mother in the 1970s, she was like most first time parents: nervous. 

She wanted to raise her children right and said she was pretty strict—they couldn’t have a lot of candy and they couldn’t keep their eyes glued to the television.

But there was one show she allowed them to watch each day: Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

“It wasn’t long before I realized that I was watching him for me,” she said.

Fred Rogers’ calm, gentle tone really helped Carioli as a new parent. She said the way he would tackle tough subjects became a model for the conversations she’d have with her own children.

“It just made it so much easier to talk to my kids about their feelings and difficult topics,” she said. “I grew to love him as a father figure. I mean, I really did love him.”

Carioli said she closely observed the way Rogers interacted with his young audience and the other characters on the show, and made sure her own children were watching, too.

A room in Cyndie Carioli's home features albums and a poster of Fred Rogers. She says when her children were young, she saw Rogers in Philadelphia and that she'd "never forget it. We were just in a tizzy."
Credit Cyndie Carioli / 90.5 WESA

“If he were talking to a child or a professional or somebody that he met, you know, a puppet, it was the same for him,” she said. “He always spoke respectfully and caringly to no matter who.”

Carioli’s son Carley said growing up, he remembers his mother looking to the show for guidance.  

“My mom would walk around singing those Mister Rogers songs to us in times where, I think, she was struggling to talk to us about things that were going on in our lives,” he said. "That was her north star, was Mister Rogers.”

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s debut on public television. It was filmed at the studios of WQED in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood from 1968 to 2001. Through the years, viewers of the show said it’s helped grown-ups become parents, and children grow up.

Generations in the Neighborhood of Make Believe

The legacy especially rings true for South Side resident Joyce Wilbur. As a child, she said she watched the Mr. Rogers’ predecessor The Children’s Corner with host Josie Carey.

Joyce Wilbur and her granddaughter, Barbara Bouman, with their matching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood t-shirts. Wilbur watched Fred Rogers' first children's show, The Children's Corner, and Barbara watches the latest spinoff animated series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.
Credit Emily Bouman

“It was the only show on TV at the time for children that [my parents] didn’t feel would mess with their values,” Wilbur said. “They could sit us in front of the TV and feel pretty good about what we were seeing.”

When she became a mother, Wilbur said she felt just as comfortable having her kids watch Mister Rogers.

“It taught me how I could talk to my 3-year-old—not as a child, really, but as a person who deserves the respect of a thoughtful conversation.”

Wilbur said the songs that Rogers would sing with the children stuck with her as a parent, and followed her daughter when she had her own children.

“My daughter said she thinks about [the songs] raising her daughter, Barbara, and specifically mentioned ‘What do you do with the mad that you feel?’” Wilbur said. “That’s helped her discuss with her daughter about her feelings and how she has control of her feelings and doesn’t need to feel overwhelmed when she’s mad.”

Barbara, Wilbur’s now 5-year-old granddaughter, watches the Mr. Rogers’ animated spinoff, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Daniel, the main character, is meant to be the grandson of the original Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger.

The tone and the pacing of Daniel Tiger is similar to Mister Rogers,' Wilbur said, and she’s witnessed firsthand how the songs have been helpful in calming her granddaughter.

“I was going to babysit Barbara and when her parents were getting ready to leave…she starts chanting ‘grownups come back,’” Wilbur said. “She did this until her parents stepped out of the car and chanted it back to her. Then she was fine. But it was something she’d seen on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

In an episode, Daniel and his friends talk about how it’s normal to feel anxious when parents leave, but important to understand that they’ll always return. Wilbur said shows like Daniel Tiger and Mister Rogers’ are effective at helping kids cope with those feelings of insecurity.

Parents remember their favorite parts of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on a Facebook post.

Making the Connection

Rogers’ relaxed presentation was deliberate, according to Fred Rogers Center co-director Junlei Li, he was intentional when he spoke directly to the camera.

“He’s not thinking about broadcasting to millions of children,” Li said. “He would always say, ‘I’m thinking about this one child who’s there, and perhaps the one parent who’s standing nearby and listening.”

Li said Rogers wanted to create a fictional world that would reflect what kids might encounter in real life.

“The Neighborhood of Make Believe is this place Fred created to help children understand the kind of hard work that it takes to build a neighborhood in which people can understand each other’s difference, accept each other’s differences and work through difficult challenges,” Li said.

The storylines within the Neighborhood of Make Believe, like how to share and how to compromise, Li said, were meant to serve as templates for conversations between young people and their parents.

But Rogers’ persona went farther for many viewers, including Spring Hill resident Riley Baker, who said when he matured, he started to recognize that Rogers exemplified a version of masculinity that wasn’t always present in children’s programming.

Fred Rogers rehearses with some of his puppet friends from the Neighborhood of Make Believe in Pittsburgh, on Jan. 4, 1984.
Credit Gene J. Puskar / AP

“Rogers showed us a way that men can be caring and considerate and listening and thoughtful,” Baker said.

Now the father of 5-year-old Luna, Baker said when he watches Mister Rogers' and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with his family, it’s a time for them all to reflect and an opportunity for Luna to find language for her emotions.

The Neighborhood's Enduring Lessons

A young Fred Rogers poses next to the signature traffic light on the set of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in 1969.
Credit AP

Ohio mother Colleen Cook found the Daniel Tiger series has the same impact on her youngsters, especially when she had her third child about a month ago.

“We joke that Daniel Tiger is the third parent in our house,” Cook said. “My children have learned how to share with others, how to play kindly with their siblings and how to welcome a sibling into the family.”

She said she watched Mister Rogers growing up, and has found that her two older daughters are taking in the same lessons from Daniel Tiger that she remembers learning.

“I think my children have a good understanding of their emotions and how to make good choices when they are feeling angry or scared or sad,” she said. “As a parent, I also am a better, more understanding, patient parent.”

The Fred Rogers Center is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the program with a showing of the first episode and a panel discussion of the series’ legacy. Throughout the year, others are holding special events for the show, too, including a performance of the music of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at the August Wilson Center in April.